On Friendship, On Old Age & Letters by Cicero
In introducing Cicero's writings, the editors of the Harvard
Classics give a brief overview of the historical events -- the Roman
Civil War, the assassination of Julius Caesar, the emergence of Marc
Antony and Octavian, and the birth of the Roman Empire -- that
dominated Cicero's public life. The editors conclude:
which were were undermining the Republic bear so many striking
resemblances to those which threaten the civic and national life of
America to-day that the interest of the period is by no means merely
historical. To which I found myself responding,
Of course, this note of alarmist presentism would be nearly required of a contemporary academic introducing a Penguin Classic. But these words were written in 1909, in a period one thinks of now as the calm before the great conflagrations of the last century. I'm guessing the reference here is to the assassination of McKinley and to Teddy Roosevelt's subsequent expansion of executive power. But that's only a hunch. All of which goes to show something, I suppose, though I'm not sure what...
On to the volume itself, of which the most striking moment occurs in Cicero's letter to Lucius Lucceius, a friend who had retired from public life to write a history of Rome:
I am inflamed with an inconceivably ardent desire, and one, as I think, of which I have no reason to be ashamed, that in a history written by you my name should be conspicuous and frequently mentioned with praise. [...] I am quite aware, however, what little modesty I display, first, in imposing on you so heavy a burden (for your engagements may well prevent your compliance with my request), and in the second place, in asking you to shew me off to advantage. What if those transactions are not in your judgment so very deserving of commendation? Yet, after all, a man who has once passed the border-line of modesty had better put a bold face on it and be frankly impudent. And so I again and again ask you outright, both to praise those actions of mine in warmer terms than you perhaps feel, and in that respect to neglect the laws of history.
If I might engage in my own act of presentism: I doubt that even Karl Rove would have the chutzpah to address a letter like this to Roger Ailes (though perhaps he wouldn't have to). But what makes the request so fascinating is not just its audacity, but its historical irony. Cicero's public life was ultimately a total mess, and he's rather lucky that the 21st-century layman knows little of it. Instead, Cicero is remembered for precisely the thing that another writer couldn't possibly have saved for posterity: his prose style. As an orator and as a writer, Cicero is the greatest master of the Latin tongue.
And here is where the problems with this volume begin. For centuries, Cicero's work has been set as an example to students of Latin -- the editors of the Five Foot Shelf likely among them. But the days when ancient languages were a defining element of liberal education are long over. The Harvard Classics themselves, which are collected entirely in English and for which many new translations were specifically commissioned, recognize as much. And it seems to me that Cicero's writings, at least the ones collected here, lose a good deal of their interest in translation. To be sure, there are some striking moments, but the overall effect is one of long stretches of tedium marked by brief flashes of brilliance. I suspect I wouldn't feel this way if I were capable of reading the original.
One of the driving principles of the Harvard Classics is that our literary heritage is available to any reader willing to open the right books. And yet it may be that in our monoglotic culture the true grandeur of a stylist like Cicero is only available to specialists. If so, I'm sure Cicero would encourage the rest of us to continue to praise him in warmer terms than we feel.
Letters by Pliny the Younger
Pliny the Younger was born about a hundred years after Cicero's
death, and he lived in a calmer political era. He served the Emperor
Trajan at the height of the Empire's reach. As a writer, Pliny modeled
himself on Cicero. He is every bit as concerned with his legacy:
may think as they please; but the happiest man, in my opinion, is he
who lives in the conscious anticipation of an honest and enduring name. He even went so far as to make a similar request to a contemporary historian (although without suggesting that he
neglect the laws of history).
Some of the same problems of style and translation plague his letters
as collected here, but I found them far more fun to read than Cicero's.
There are more Vestal virgins here, more sooth-sayers, more gladiators.
These letters include not one but two examples of wives killing
themselves just so that their husbands will have the courage to do the
same. Also, there are descriptions of back-scratching literary readings
that will amuse anyone who has spent time in a graduate writing program.
But most of all, I prefer Pliny because he tells a better ghost story:
There was at Athens a large and roomy house, which had a bad name, so that no one could live there. In the dead of the night a noise, resembling the clashing of iron, was frequently heard, which, if you listened more attentively, sounded like the rattling of chains, distant at first, but approaching nearer by degrees: immediately afterwards a spectre appeared in the form of an old man, of extremely emaciated and squalid appearance, with a long beard and dishevelled, hair, rattling the chains on his feet and hands. The distressed occupants meanwhile passed their wakeful nights under the most dreadful terrors imaginable. This, as it broke their rest, ruined their health, and brought on distempers, their terror grew upon them, and death ensued. Even in the daytime, though the spirit did not appear, yet the impression remained so strong upon their imaginations that it still seemed before their eyes, and kept them in perpetual alarm. Consequently the house was at length deserted, as being deemed absolutely uninhabitable; so that it was now entirely abandoned to the ghost. However, in hopes that some tenant might be found who was ignorant of this very alarming circumstance, a bill was put up, giving notice that it was either to be let or sold. It happened that Athenodorus the philosopher came to Athens at this time, and, reading the bill, enquired the price. The extraordinary cheapness raised his suspicion; nevertheless, when he heard the whole story, he was so far from being discouraged that he was more strongly inclined to hire it, and, in short, actually did so. When it grew towards evening, he ordered a couch to be prepared for him in the front part of the house, and, after calling for a light, together with his pencil and tablets, directed all his people to retire. But that his mind might not, for want of employment, be open to the vain terrors of imaginary noises and spirits, he applied himself to writing with the utmost attention. The first part of the night passed in entire silence, as usual; at length a clanking of iron and rattling of chains was heard: however, he neither lifted up his eyes nor laid down his pen, but, in order to keep calm and collected, tried to pass the sounds off to himself as something else. The noise increased and advanced nearer, till it seemed at the door, and at last in the chamber. He looked up, saw, and recognized the ghost exactly as it had been described to him: it stood before him, beckoning with the finger, like a person who calls another. Athenodorus in reply made a sign with his hand that it should wait a little, and threw his eyes again upon his papers; the ghost then rattled its chains over the head of the philosopher, who looked up upon this, and seeing it beckoning as before, immediately arose, and, light in hand, followed it. The ghost slowly stalked along, as if encumbered with its chains, and, turning into the area of the house, suddenly vanished. Athenodorus, being thus deserted, made a mark with some grass and leaves on the spot where the spirit left him. The next day he gave information to the magistrates, and advised them to order that spot to be dug up. This was accordingly done, and the skeleton of a man in chains was found there; for the body, having lain a considerable time in the ground, was putrefied and mouldered away from the fetters. The bones, being collected together, were publicly buried, and thus after the ghost was appeased by the proper ceremonies, the house was haunted no more.
--CRB, March 11, 2007